Simply put, all beer can be divided into two categories: ales and lagers. Obviously there are subcategories of different "styles" of beer for each category. "Beer" is a beautiful yet generic term which covers all categories of this delicious malt beverage. So, what then is the difference between ales and lagers? The difference is mainly in the temperature at which the beer was fermented, what kind of yeast is used in the process and how long the beer takes to mature.
Ales are brewed using "top fermentating" yeast, which means that once the beer is done fermenting, the yeast rises to the top of the tank before it drops to the bottom. These brews are fermented warm at 65-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Ales are fuller in body and residual sugar and can take just three weeks to produce.
Lagers are the most common beers brewed in the world. Budweiser, Bud Lite, Miller Lite, Coors, Busch, Heinekin, Becks, etc. are all lagers. They use "bottom fermenting" yeast, meaning the yeast falls to the bottom of the tank immediately after completing fermentation. Compared to ales, lagers are usually dry and crisp, and ferment at colder temperatures and can take six to eight weeks to produce.
Chicks who have been more exposed to wine than beer can understand it this way. Ales are the red wine of beer. Like red wine, they ferment warm and have rich flavors and characteristics. Lagers, on the other hand, are more like white wine. They ferment at lower temperatures and have cleaner, more delicate flavors.
Try this out for a beer /food pairing experiment: Where a meal would call for a red wine, try substituting an ale, and where a meal calls for white wine, try a lager instead.
This information was provided by the fabulous Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, Ca.